The Division of Freshwater Fisheries, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) project to restore valuable fish habitat in Lake Istokpoga, Highlands County was initiated in March. The state's fifth largest lake, Istokpoga has undergone rapid, unnatural plant succession since 1961 when water levels were stabilized for flood control and water storage. Floating mats of vegetation (tussocks) and associated organic sediments (muck) now cover more than 2,000 acres of littoral zone, eliminating aquatic habitat essential for fish production and bird feeding, impacting navigation, reducing aesthetic values, increasing potential nutrient loads from within the lake, and threatening flood control structures. Current drought conditions favored implementing the drawdown project this year, rather than waiting for 2003 as originally planned. The South Florida Water Management District has provided up to $3 million to accomplish this ambitious project, and aggressive coordination has allowed the FWC to put people on the lake less than two months after the opportunity arose. The FWC will repay the District within two years, provided the Legislature makes funds available.

Contractors will work through June to remove 1.7 million cubic yards of tussocks and muck from more than 21 miles of shoreline, restoring about 1,270 acres of habitat. Fisheries staff is working with 12 cooperative landowners around the lake who are providing equipment access across their land, as well as upland disposal sites. This project is an excellent example of teamwork, with many local, state, and federal agencies working together along with citizen groups helping to improve this valuable resource. The project will help ensure the health of a $3-million annual sport fishery, enhance fish and wildlife habitat, and help protect private property around Lake Istokpoga from flooding in the event of a major storm.